Shakuni ‘The Mama’ and his Afghan Connection in Mahabharata
Indian archaeologists are bringing to light more and more pieces of evidence to confirm the existence of a great civilisation that flourished during the time of Pandavas and Kauravas. As a result, we cannot regard Mahabharata as an epic anymore, as the British would have us to believe.
Instead, we may call Mahabharata a valuable chronicle. This chronicle had documented the intricate details of the rise and fall of an empire that ruled most parts of ancient India.
We also come to know a lot about the strength, weakness, belief, life-style, social system, inheritance rules, power struggle, conspiracies and much more of the contemporary people of that time.
A hidden crack somewhere may initiate the ultimate demolition of a magnificent mansion. Similarly, Shakuni had engineered the total destruction of the entire Kuru clan most unobtrusively. He tiptoed into the royal palace, teeming with inmates, as an obscure maternal uncle of the Crown Prince Duryodhana. But working from inside, he put his sinister plan in action, ever so slowly, taking years of time, to achieve his target of the complete devastation of the mighty Kuru dynasty.
The readers of Mahabharata usually hate Shakuni as a cunning and crafty crook. But let us investigate why he did what he did? Was he solely responsible for the demolition of the Kuru dynasty? Was he inhuman like an evil monster? At the end we may not despise Shakuni any longer. We may end up admiring him.
Shakuni was a prince by birth. His father was Subal, the King of Gandhara (the present Kandahar in Afghanistan).
Gandhara was a small but independent state. King Subal, had 100 sons and 11 daughters. Gandhari, the eldest daughter, was the most beautiful, highly educated and talented princess among the rest of the sisters.
Kuru Dynasty was the largest and the most powerful in India. The Monarch of the Kuru dynasty was Dhritarashtra. He was born blind. Therefore, Bhishma, his uncle, acted as his Regent.
To expand the Kuru Kingdom, Bhishma constantly attacked and annexed one independent state after the other. After defeating those Kings in battle, he routinely abducted their daughters to get them married to Dhritarashtra. Abduction of young princesses seemed to be an obsession for Bhishma. This psychological delusion may have originated from his own promise to his father Shantanu, never to get married and produce an offspring who could ascend the throne.
It was not surprising, that Dhritarashtra having that many wives at his disposal would become the proud father of one hundred sons. The eldest son Duryodhana and daughter Dushala were born to Queen Gandhari. It is also known that Dhritarashtra fathered a son Yuyutsu with Sugadha, the maid of Queen Gandhari. Perhaps it is mentioned nowhere that how many sons and daughters Dhritarashtra might have fathered and with who all.
With uncle Bhishma taking care of the Kingdom, the visually impaired King probably took charge of blindly producing progenies. But that is beside the point here.
When Bhishma attacked the tiny Kingdom of Gandhara, he ran over its army with ease. During the fight he captured all the sons of King Subal and held them hostages. Then he threw a siege around Subal’s fortress to bring the King down to his knees in surrender. When King Subal heard that Bhishma fed his sons only one grain of rice per day and they were on the brink of death, he was heartbroken. He immediately offered to give out all the grains stored in his fort to get his sons released. Bhishma refused to accept his offer.
Finally, he agreed to set free only one son. Thus, Shakuni, the brightest among his brothers, was allowed to walk free out of Bhishma’s clutches.
The rest of his brothers died of starvation one by one. But, as if that was not enough – Bhishma demanded to take away Gandhari, to get married to the blind King Dhritarashtra. Ultimately, he took away all eleven daughters with him. On arrival back home he got Gandhari and her ten sisters forcibly married to Dhritarashtra.
Helpless Gandhari felt so humiliated that she never wanted to cast her eyes on Dhritarashtra. She blindfolded herself as a mark of her protest. Considering the circumstances of her marriage, it could not possibly be an act of great sacrifice for the love of her blind husband, as popularly believed.
With this background, anyone can guess how deeply tormented Shakuni would have been and how intensely he would want to take revenge on the Kuru clan for ruining his entire family, humiliating his father and robbing him of his kingdom.
However, Shakuni was so brilliant that his intelligence and tact were second to only Dwarakadhish Sri Krishna, the most talented statesman of his time. He knew that it was impossible to fight against the mighty Kuru dynasty alone. So he decided to make think out his action plan and continue refining it, while lying low for the time being.
An Artist’s Impression of Shakuni
When Duryodhana, the eldest son of Gandhari was born, Shakuni made his entry unobtrusively into the inner core of the palace of Dhritarashtra and stayed put there as the loving maternal uncle of infant Duryodhana. No one could suspect his real intention.
As Duryodhana started growing up, Shakuni became his mentor and made him entirely dependent on him for advice and guidance. Gradually, through Duryodhana, he secured a berth in King Dhritarashtra’s court to keep track of all political developments taking place in the Kingdom.
Shakuni ensured that he never came to the forefront. But he made Duryodhana follow his biddings unquestioningly, ignoring all others. By utilising his nephew’s mercurial temper as a tool, Shakuni launched his malevolent plan.
He got some dice manufactured out of the bones of his dead brothers and influenced Duryodhana to challenge the prosperous Pandavas to play a game of dice (a type of gamble).
Yudhisthira, the eldest of the Pandava brothers had to accept the challenge. Yudhishthira and Duryodhana started playing.
Shakuni throwing dice on behalf of Duryodhana (An Artist’s Impression)
The spirits of Shakuni’s dead brothers ensured that the dice, when thrown by Shakuni, came up with the numbers that favoured only Duryodhana.
Consequently, the Pandava‘s lost everything they possessed. They were subjected to severe insult in front of everyone in the court and finally forced to go on exile for thirteen long years.
During their exile, Shakuni through his intelligence network, kept a track of the Pandavas. He tried to burn Pandavas alive, when they were supposed to be fast asleep in a house made of highly inflammable materials.
Only a timely secret message sent by Vidura, the biological father of Yudhisthira, saved their lives. (Pandu, the legal father of the Pandavas, was a born weakling and impotent man).
After their exile term was over, the Pandavas returned to Hastinapur and claimed their part of the Kingdom. On the advice of Shakuni, Duryodhana stubbornly refused to return their Kingdom.
Instead, he compelled the Pandavas to fight a war, of course under the instigation of Shakuni. In the epic battle of Kurukshetra, the entire Kuru clan got killed in a matter of only eighteen days. Thus Shakuni took his revenge most successfully, though he too lost his life in that battle.
Shakuni had a tender, affectionate side too. Occasionally we have a glimpse of this human face. He loved his sister Gandhari very dearly and knew that she was mortally scared of darkness right from her early childhood. He was extremely pained to see her blindfolded and remain in perpetual darkness.
On many occasions in Mahabharata, Shakuni pleaded with Gandhari to remove the cover from her eyes. Even at the advanced stage of the battle, he did come back from the battlefield, only to urge his sister to remove the blindfold and watch Bhishma, their tormentor, lying on the bed of arrows, painfully awaiting death.
Gandhari and Shakuni (An Artist’s Impression)
Though Shakuni made use of the short tempered and probably less intelligent Duryodhana as a tool, he was as affectionate to him as any other doting maternal uncle. He was so loyal to his nephew that, instead of deserting him after the doomed battle of Kurukshetra started, he stuck the battlefield with his nephew till he got killed.
Shakuni brought down the mighty Kuru Kingdom to bite the dust single-handed. It is difficult to deny a grudging admiration due for him.
Like an efficient and super intelligent one-man army, he went about working on his single targeted mission, with the calm composure, unshakable confidence. Ultimately he succeeded to destroy the most powerful empire of his time.
In my personal opinion, Shakuni was a great Kshatriya (Royal fighter class). He was a master strategist of his time. He had the patience to take baby steps spanning decades until his plan to destroy the Kuru dynasty succeeded.
He never lost his clarity of purpose, and he never mixed up personal emotions with the task he had to do dispassionately. His deception as a courtier in King Dhritarashtra‘s court was perfect. His cover never got blown.
His love for his sister was most tender, and his loyalty to his nephew was genuine. He succeeded to take his revenge for his father’s humiliation, murder of his ninety-nine brothers and forcible marriage of all his sisters to a blind man – all wilfully and cruelly mated out by Bhishma.
Considering the injustice he suffered in life, he was justified to take his revenge. After all, he was a human being.
The way he planned and executed the plan, was nothing less than heroic. I strongly feel that, not Shakuni, but the cruelty of Bhishma was the genesis of the battle of Kurukshetra that led to the bloody end of the Kuru dynasty.
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